Thor (United States, 2011)

May 06, 2011
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Thor Poster

Note: Thor is available in both 2-D and 3-D formats. I chose to see it in the former because of my growing dislike for the latter. I'm satisfied with the decision. Thor is not a native 3-D production; it was converted after the fact. By all accounts, the conversion is adequate, but the 2-D offers visuals worthy of a spectacle, with bright images, vibrant colors, dark scenes that aren't muddy, and no trace of blur during action sequences. Insofar as I can tell, the 2-D version is the way to go, especially since it doesn't demand paying extra money for the privilege of wearing uncomfortable glasses for two hours.

Thor represents the first-ever melding of Norse mythology, comic books, and Shakespeare. Talk about "something for everyone." Still, despite its diverse ingredients and the panache with which director Kenneth Branagh brings them all together, it's worth wondering whether Thor will be able to pull in the box office numbers that inevitably seem to accompany the release of a major superhero movie. For one thing, it's debatable whether the character of "Thor" could be considered an A-list character (in terms of overall popularity, he's probably a B+). Then there's the question of whether Branagh has injected a little too much art into this would-be pop blockbuster. Remember Ang Lee's Hulk: beloved by critics, hated by fans of the comic books.

Perhaps the best thing that can be said about Thor is that it doesn't feel like a cookie-cutter superhero comic book origin story. There's more heft and variety here than one expects from this obligatory chapter of a franchise. The screenplay borrows frequently and carelessly from mythology and from its graphic source material, incorporating the back story into the main plot. Ironically, in an era when most movies are too slow and too long, Thor might have benefitted from an extra quarter-hour or so; there are instances in which the story moves almost too quickly, with transitions sometimes shortened or altogether dropped. The central love story, for example, is given so little time to percolate that it feels artificial.

A full 30 minutes is devoted to the prologue that introduces the denizens of Asgard, including the king, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), and his two sons, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston). An ill-advised retaliatory strike by Thor into Jotunheim, the realm of the Frost Giants, with the goal of bringing the Asgardians' ancient enemy, Laufey (Colm Feore) the Frost Giant King, to heel, endangers centuries of fragile peace and enrages Odin. The one-eyed god strips his first-born of his powers and banishes him to Earth. There, Thor is discovered wandering in the middle of the New Mexico desert by scientists Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard), and Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings), raving about his hammer. As Thor attempts to adjust to 21st century Earth culture and convince people, including SHIELD agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) and Jane, of his true identity (and that he's not merely a homeless lunatic with special ops training), he senses the lesson Odin intended for him through his banishment. Meanwhile, in Asgard, with Thor out of the way, Loki puts into place a plan that will result in him ruling the Nine Realms.

Branagh, the premiere living cinematic interpreter of Shakespeare, finds plenty of hooks to the works of the Bard either in the text or the subtext of Thor, including "King Lear," "Henry IV," and "Othello." That's not to say the film plays out like a summer reading assignment; on the contrary, those who know nothing of Shakespeare's works won't be squirming with impatience or wallowing in ignorance. Thor unfolds like an action-adventure epic that fits nicely into Marvel's ever-expanding movie universe. In addition to curbing some of his more operatic flourishes (this movie is more restrained than two previous non-Shakespeare movies, Dead Again and Frankenstein), Branagh shows a perhaps unexpected degree of comfort with special effects. These are not top-notch, ILM computer-generated images, but they're good enough to get the job done.

Chris Hemsworth (almost, but not quite, an unknown - having played Kirk's father in J.J. Abrams' Star Trek) proves to be an inspired choice as the God of Thunder, possessing not only the good looks and physique required for the part, but the ability to express the range of emotions necessary to take Thor on his emotional arc from arrogance and entitlement to humility and virtue. In many ways, Thor is Marvel's incarnation of Superman; Hemsworth brings and edge to the character that will keep him from becoming bland.

Tom Hiddleston, a classically-trained British actor, plays Thor's most interesting character, the conflicted Loki. Had Shakespeare scripted the movie, it would have focused on Odin's younger son, and that's where a lot of Branagh's energy is channeled. That's not to say that Loki has a more prominent role than Thor, but his contribution is not marginalized. He's less of a clear-cut villain than most bad guys we encounter in superhero movies. He has Daddy issues, feels like an outcast within his own home, and has grown jealous of living in Thor's shadow. Hiddleston plays the character with such passion invested in the gray areas that it's hard not to feel a sense of sympathy for Loki.

The rest of the cast is rounded out with pedigreed actors who aren't given a lot to do. Anthony Hopkins' Odin doesn't have the screen time to develop into much more than the stern God-king. Stellan Skarsgaard does little more than occasionally move the plot along and provide alternating snippets of sage advice and comedic relief. Natalie Portman's Jane is underwritten and underused. Her character's budding romance with Thor is not credible, due more to the rushed screenplay than to any deficiency in the actors' chemistry. The writers might have been served by bringing on board a romantic comedy veteran to flesh out the skeletal love story, which we're supposed to accept even though we don't believe it.

There are times when Thor feels like an extended teaser for The Avengers, although that sense isn't as apparent as it was during parts of Iron Man 2. Still, Branagh does his best to mold his movie into a self-contained adventure rather than a prologue to Marvels' 2012 superhero overdose. Samuel L. Jackson doesn't make an appearance until the obligatory post-credits sequence, which reveals something about the possible direction in which The Avengers is headed.

Thor is more about grand scenes and moments of spectacle than it is about traditional action. There are a couple of battle scenes, but they don't generate a surfeit of tension. This is especially true of the mandatory Loki/Thor smackdown, which amounts to little more than some clanging of weapons and throwing around of special effects. Those who are looking for high-octane action may be disappointed by what this film has to offer. Those satisfied with an understanding of the complex mythology surrounding the character, coupled with the entertaining "fish out of water" that results from a God wandering around 21st century America, may be delighted. Branagh's Thor is big enough and bold enough to fit under the Marvel umbrella but infused with sufficient uniqueness to make it work for those weary of generic superhero stories.

Thor (United States, 2011)

Run Time: 1:54
U.S. Release Date: 2011-05-06
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1